The Inspiring Story of the Gospel Going to Black Africa
E. Dale LeBaron
Ricks College Devotional
April 3, 2001
I wish to speak about a unique and inspiring chapter in church history. It took place in recent years among the beautiful people of Africa. Too often, we have misconceptions about Africa and its people. Africa is referred to as the "Dark Continent" and the media usually portrays Africans as primitive, starving or at war with each other. One African official observed that the darkest thing about Africa is America's ignorance of it.
When I was in Africa several years ago, I was sent the following quote: "In Africa there are tribes that beat the ground with clubs while uttering spine chilling cries. Anthropologists call this a primitive form of self-expression. But, in America we do the same thing but we call it GOLF!"
President Gordon B. Hinckley said, "The days of pioneering in the Church are still with us, they did not end with covered wagons and handcarts. Pioneers are those individuals who help establish the Church all over the world."
There is much we can learn from our African brothers and sisters, who are among the great pioneers in this church. Most of the pioneers that I will focus on this afternoon were not members of the Church and we knew very little about them. I seek your faith and prayers that we might be edified by the example of these great pioneers and by the assurance of God's love for all of his children.
In 1853, six years after the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley, the first missionaries were sent to Africa, but they only proselyted among the white people of South Africa. It was not until 125 years later, following the revelation on the priesthood in 1978, that the gospel was able to be preached to all people of Africa. However, thirty years before the revelation, church leaders became aware of black Africans who were interested in the Church. By the 1950's, many letters were sent to church headquarters from the west African nations of Nigeria and Ghana, requesting literature and membership in the Church. The letters were written by devout Christians who had gained a testimony from the Book of Mormon or other church literature.
What began as a comparative trickle of requests in the early 1950's became a flood by the 1960's. More letters requesting church literature were received from Nigeria and Ghana than from all the rest of the world combined. The Church responded by sending literature, but the demand was so great that some Africans even established LDS bookstores. However, since there were no priesthood holders to preside and provide priesthood ordinances, those asking for baptism were told: "The time is not yet. You must wait."
As they waited, they shared their knowledge and testimony of the gospel with others and organized congregations. It was reported that in the 1960's there were over sixty congregations in Nigeria and Ghana, with more than 16,000 participants, none of whom were baptized. This was a paradox for the church. With an army of missionaries eager to go to the ends of the earth to teach and baptize, there were thousands in Africa pleading to join the Church whom we were not able to baptize. As far as is known, nothing like this has occurred in this or in any other dispensation. The intensity of their pleadings continued to increase, as reflected in this letter to President David O. McKay from a pastor in Nigeria who had made previous requests for baptism. He wrote:
"I have to say that my heart will not rest ...until I achieve my objective to be a baptized member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost... and to be fully instructed in the gospel as restored [through the] Prophet, Joseph Smith ... in order to be able to preach the true gospel to my people and win for my Savior, hearts that should otherwise perish in the darkness."
Such letters received President McKay's attention and concern, not only because of their fervent plea but also because of their letterhead, which read, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nigeria Branch." The Prophet did not know that there were branches of the Church in Nigeria.
In 1961 President McKay assigned LaMar Williams, secretary to the Church Missionary Department, to go to Nigeria on a month long fact finding mission, to determine if the people were sincere and willing to accept the Church without holding the priesthood. Although Brother Williams had been responding to the flood of letters from Africa, he was not prepared for what he found there. He was met at the airport in Port Harcourt, Nigeria by ten pastors with whom he had been corresponding. He was treated like royalty but surprised to discover that not only did each pastor operate independently, they were not even aware of each other. The first official church meeting in black Africa was held October 22, 1961 in a small mud hut in Opobo District, Nigeria where Brother Williams met with a pastor and 110 followers. No one came by car. Many, including eight mothers with small children, had begun their day before 4:00 a.m. and walked twenty-five miles or more to be there. After teaching them for two hours, Brother Williams prepared to end the meeting. He recorded:
It was hot as blazes. My suit was wringing wet. When I turned the meeting back to [the pastor], I heard a murmur all through the congregation and [the pastor] said to me, "They don't want to go home. They have something to say." Then for three hours these people were standing up bearing testimony to the truthfulness of the Church and how they believed in the Prophets. I could not believe what I was hearing. One elderly gentleman said: "I keep hearing you say, 'if we are sincere.' Elder Williams, I want you to know that I am sincere. I am an old man . I am sick. But when I heard you were going to be here, I walked 16 miles this morning to see you and to hear what you have to say. I still have to walk 16 miles to get back home, and I am not well. I want you to know that I am sincere or I would not be here. I have not seen President McKay. I have not seen God. But I have seen you. And I will hold you personally accountable to tell President McKay that I am sincere."
Brother Williams reported to President McKay that he felt thousands were ready for baptism. For the next four years the Church made every effort to send missionaries but the Nigerian government refused to issue the necessary visas. When Africa's most devastating civil war, the Biafran war, exploded in Nigeria these efforts ceased. LaMar Williams turned over 15,000 names of unbaptized African converts to Elders Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B.Hinckley, both of whom were on the Church Missionary Committee. The Church made every effort to establish itself in west Africa but was prevented from doing so. However, the Lord has promised that His eternal blessings will come "in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will."
The Lord's "own time" for black Africa came in June1978. "His own way" was a revelation given to His Prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball making all gospel blessings available to all worthy members. The Lord's "own will" regarding the priesthood restriction and the removal of it has been stated by Prophets, Seers and Revelators.
In 1949 the First Presidency stated that the priesthood restriction was "not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord." Twenty years later, they further stated: "From the beginning of this dispensation, Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the Church have taught that [blacks] were not to receive the priesthood for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man." President Spencer W. Kimball, whose clarion call during his ministry was to take the gospel to EVERY NATION, KINDRED, TONGUE AND PEOPLE, was particularly aware of many under priesthood restriction throughout the world, and he pleaded long and earnestly with the Lord in their behalf. Also in numerous temple meetings, President Kimball met with his Counselors and the Twelve to discuss this issue.
In such a meeting on June 2, 1978, President Kimball asked his Brethren to express their feelings regarding this matter. Elder David B. Haight recalled that as each one spoke, there was an outpouring of the Spirit which bonded their souls together in perfect unity. Then President Kimball suggested that they have prayer at the altar. President Gordon B. Hinckley recalled:
"There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room. For me, it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his Brethren... Every man in that circle, by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing. Not one of us was ever quite the same after that. Nor has the Church been quite the same. Tremendous eternal consequences for millions over the earth are flowing from that manifestation. This has opened great areas of the world to the teaching of the everlasting gospel. We have cause to rejoice that we have seen this glorious day."
One tender moment of rejoicing was shared by David M. Kennedy, who had served for years as President Kimball's special ambassador in helping the Church enter new countries. Previous to the revelation, as they would study a large map of the world Brother Kennedy would place one hand over the continent of Africa, saying, "We can't go there unless they have the priesthood."
On June 9, 1978, a subdued President Kimball returned from the temple prior to announcing to the world the revelation that had been received. He stopped at Brother Kennedy's office, opened the door and with deep emotion, he said, "David, now you can take your hand off Africa."
How important was this revelation? The First Presidency have said that the most important events in history are those which affect the largest numbers for the longest periods. By this criteria, when we consider those affected by this revelation which includes millions on the earth and billions on the other side of the veil we can see why President Kimball said that it brought one of the greatest changes and blessings that has ever been known. Flood gates were now open for the gospel to go to Africa and to African ancestors. When this revelation was announced, my wife and I were presiding over the only mission on the continent of Africa. The announcement brought feelings and stirrings impossible to describe. As inspiring as it was, I felt a great concern because Africans do not traditionally keep written histories, and I felt their unique experiences needed to be preserved. The desire to help preserve that history was later realized. Since coming to BYU, I have been blessed by the Lord and received help from others in obtaining oral histories from more than 700 African pioneers in twenty-six countries, from which I will now share some insights.
The Lord has historically raised up Elias' to prepare his people to receive the gospel. John the Baptist was the Elias who prepared people at the Savior's time. At the beginning of this dispensation the Lord used various Eliases. For example, Sidney Rigdon, a Cambellite preacher in Ohio, prepared many for the gospel, including future Counselors in the First Presidency, Apostles and Presiding Bishops. To Sidney Rigdon the Lord said: "thou was sent forth, even as John to prepare the way before me...and thou knewest it not" (D&C 35:4).
In black Africa, where the revelation on the Priesthood was, in effect, the restoration of the gospel for them, a loving Heavenly Father raised up many Eliases to help prepare the people. Let me share some examples.
The first missionaries sent to black Africa were Rendell and Rachel Mabey and Ted and Janath Cannon. They arrived in Nigeria just five months after the revelation. Their first baptism was Anthony Obinna, who had waited and pleaded for membership for thirteen years. In 1965 Brother Obinna had a dream that he did not understand but which impressed him deeply. He said: "One night I was sleeping and a tall man came to me and took me to one of the most beautiful buildings and showed me all the rooms. Then in 1970 I found [a] Reader's Digest article titled, "The March of the Mormons," with a picture of the Salt Lake Temple. It was exactly the same building that I had seen in my dreams." Immediately Brother Obinna wrote to Church headquarters requesting literature and baptism. He received literature, organized a congregation and continued writing letters requesting baptism. Finally, after years of pleading, he wrote directly to the Council of Twelve saying: "Your long silence about the establishment of the Church in Nigeria is very embarrassing. Did Christ not say, 'Go ye and teach all nations?" It is not often that the Brethren are chastised by nonmembers for not baptizing converts? However, when Brother Obinna learned that the revelation had been received he wrote the following to President Kimball: "We are happy for the many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple you spent supplicating the Lord to bring us into the fold. We thank our Heavenly Father for hearing your prayers and ours and by revelation has confirmed the long promised day to receive every blessing of the gospel." On the day Brother Obinna was baptized he was ordained to the Priesthood and set apart as the first black African branch president and Sister Obinna became the first Relief Society president. Soon after his baptism, Brother Obinna prophesied: "The seed of the gospel will grow into a giant tree. The Church in Nigeria will surprise the world in its growth."
And so it has.
In both Nigeria and Ghana the missionaries found hundreds who had testimonies of the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the restoration of the Gospel. All they needed was baptism. And so they were baptized! In one twenty-four hour period 149 converts were baptized. Within one year there were over 1,700 members in 35 branches in West Africa. After only nine and a half years of missionary work, Elder Neal A. Maxwell organized the Aba Nigeria Stake on May 15, 1988 the first stake in which all priesthood leaders were black and he noted that this was an historic day for the Church "in this dispensation, and in any dispensation." He told the Saints:
"I was present in the upper room of the temple that early June day in 1978 when all the General Authorities gathered to receive the revelation and decision from President Spencer W. Kimball. I wept with joy that day. The handkerchief I wiped my tears with I took home and told my wife not to wash it. I put it in my book of remembrance, still bearing the marks of my tears. On this Sunday, I have a second handkerchief that [has] wiped more tears of joy. I will take it home and place it in my book of remembrance next to the other handkerchief."
In Ghana the field was also ready to harvest, due mainly to another Elias, Joseph William Billy Johnson, a preacher who obtained a Book of Mormon in 1964. He said:
"As I read the Book of Mormon I became convinced that it was really the word of God, and sometimes while reading I would burst into tears. I felt the Spirit as I read. I have a strong testimony [of] the Book of Mormon. It is a very powerful book!" Brother Johnson also knew that the Lord called him to be an Elias. He said:
"One early morning I saw the heavens open and angels with trumpets singing songs of praise unto God. In the course of this I heard my name mentioned thrice, 'Johnson, Johnson, Johnson. If you will take up my work as I will command you, I will bless you and bless your land.' Trembling and in tears I replied, 'Lord, with thy help I will do whatsoever you will command me.' From that day onward, I was constrained by that Spirit to go from street to street to deliver the message which we had read from the Book of Mormon. I did exactly as the Lord commanded me and immediately our persecution started."
Brother Johnson reported that he was strengthened and taught by dreams and visions, including instructions from the Prophet Joseph Smith and President Brigham Young. He later demonstrated his gratitude when his son was born, who today may be the only young man in Ghana named Brigham. On another occasion, when he was very discouraged his deceased brother appeared to him in a dream, and said: "Don't worry, you have chosen the only true church on earth and I am now investigating your church." I was surprised. I never knew that the church extended to another world. It was my brother who brought that knowledge to me. He said that if I didn't believe him, he would sing a song from my church, and he sang Come, Come Ye Saints. That was the first time I had heard that hymn. He said, "Don't leave the church my brother. Please see that I am baptized." Brother Johnson then noted: "It was my brother who enlightened me about baptism for the dead and brought it to my knowledge. Most of my relatives appeared to me in dreams [saying] "Reverend Johnson, do you know you have a work to do for us? Our great grandsons and daughters will be in your church soon. See that we are baptized."
"I learned these doctrines before the missionaries arrived. Nothing they taught us seemed strange. They simply confirmed what we had heard." For fourteen long years Brother Johnson helped organize ten congregations with over a thousand followers. He noted that in his dreams the Lord referred to his followers as Latter-day Saints, even though they were not yet members. Brother Johnson identified the name of the church by placing prominent signs in front of the buildings they used for worship.
Two years ago while filming Brother Johnson's story in Ghana, I walked with him through a dilapidated building that he had used twenty-five years earlier as a church meeting house. I noticed that the roof was patched with boards to keep out the rain, but my attention was drawn to one particularly colorful board. As I pointed it out to Brother Johnson, he gasped in surprise. It was part of the sign that stood in front of the building identifying the name of the church. It will be given to the Church History Museum as a treasured artifact from the pioneer period of Ghana.
One night at midnight, after many lonely years of struggle, Brother Johnson heard a short-wave news broadcast from England that announced that blacks could now receive the priesthood. He burst into tears of joy, knowing that the Church would now come to Africa. Following his baptism Brother Johnson served as Ghana's first branch president and later served several missions. Twelve years after his baptism he was ordained a patriarch.
Another great Elias is Moses Mahlangu, a preacher from Soweto, South Africa who found a copy of the Book of Mormon. Because the bottom of the title page was torn off he did not know what church had published it.
As he read the book, he was filled with light and understanding. He said: "I had desires to find God and to receive revelation, but I was never satisfied until I got the Book of Mormon." Fluent in nine languages, Moses taught from the Book of Mormon and had gathered many followers before he learned the name of the Church and made contact with the mission headquarters in Johannesburg. For over fourteen years he waited, preparing himself and others for baptism. During this time he frequently visited the mission president and obtained copies of the Book of Mormon and other literature, and I was therefore privileged to know him. Soon after the revelation was announced, I sought out Moses. As we embraced I asked him if he had heard about the revelation. He said, "Yes. Does this mean that I can now be baptized?" I asked, "Moses, would you like to be baptized?" His eyes welled with tears as he said softly, "I have waited for fourteen years."
I conducted a baptismal interview that I shall never forget. To every question, I received the same answer: "I have been keeping that commandment for fourteen years."
I was deeply humbled in the presence of this great pioneer. His son, who as a boy accompanied Moses in his ministry, later served as Moses' Bishop in the Soweto ward, near Johannesburg.
In more recent years the Church has been established in Kenya. Julius Kasue became one of the early converts after receiving a copy of the Book of Mormon from a Latter-day Saint expatriate. In a few days, after having read half of the book, Julius returned to his friend with a full page of questions. His first question was: "How did Alma get his authority to baptize at the Waters of Mormon?"
Soon after Julius was baptized he returned to his isolated village of Chyulu, where he shared the gospel with others. He built a small meeting place out of palm branches and organized a group who worshiped together. At his request missionaries came to teach eight individuals but 75 showed up for the discussions. Forty people were baptized and a branch was organized with Brother Kasue sustained as branch president. Soon he informed the mission president that others were ready for baptism, including two men who rode their bicycles two hours to attend church each week. Concerned that the branch was too isolated, approval was given for only the two men and their families to be baptized. To provide for the baptism a corrugated steel tank was hauled by truck from Nairobi to Chyulu, an arduous journey that took four hours. Because of a severe drought, most of a day was spent pumping and hauling water four miles over a rocky trail. To raise the water level further ten brethren knelt around the inside edge of the tank so each candidate could be immersed. When 40 jubilant converts showed up for baptism the mission president learned that nearly every one in a village is considered family. The Chyulu branch was soon divided, a district was organized and a chapel was built. Last year, although the Chyulu district made up only 15% of the Church membership in Kenya, they provided half the Kenyan missionaries. In 1979, just after the missionaries arrived in black Africa, Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown prophetically told Elder Mabey: "I think you are on the frontier of one of the greatest historical events in Church history as far as growth is concerned." During the first 125 years of the Church in Africa, membership never reached 8,000. During the first 22 years after the revelation it exploded to150,000. During the year 2000, sacrament meeting attendance in the West Africa Area was 54%, second only to the Utah South Area. This is especially impressive when we consider that most Africans have to walk a considerable distance to their meetings. Africa Area President, Elder James A. Mason, tells of a stake conference in West Africa which was attended by 110% of the stake membership and there were only 8 cars in the parking lot. Another factor that brings strength to the Church in Africa is strong priesthood leadership. Africa is the only area of the Church where there are more male members that sisters.
May I share one example of priesthood strength in Africa? About two years ago I hosted a former minister of Finance from Ghana who visited Utah. He had served for eight years and is recognized world wide for lifting the economy of this poor African nation. While meeting with a member of the Twelve he shared a remarkable discovery he made during this visit. He said that when he became the Minister of Finance he was convinced that in order to improve Ghana's economy, corruption must be eliminated within the government. He began quietly observing and testing government employees to see who would not take a bribe or be dishonest. He found only two that he could fully trust and he elevated them to key government positions. Then he said, "I did not know until coming to Utah on this trip that those two men are members of your church." One of these two brethren is now serving in the Africa West Area Presidency and the other is in the Accra Ghana stake presidency.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has said that the strength of the Church is not in our numbers, our buildings, nor in the amount of tithes and offerings, but our strength is in the testimony that burns in the heart of each member. It has been my privilege to hear hundreds of testimonies from African converts. I conclude with one. It was spoken by a nine year old boy in a fast and testimony meeting in Aba, Nigeria two weeks after he was baptized. This was his message: "Good morning Brothers and Sisters. I am happy to bear my testimony because I was baptized on conference day. Since I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, God has been guiding me both in the school and at home. Now that I am baptized, I promise to continue obeying God's commandments. I testify that The Church of Jesus Christ is true. I testify that the Prophet Ezra Taft Benson is true. I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I say all these things in Jesus' name. Amen."
When Brother Jude Inmpey, an early pioneer from Nigeria, was called on to share his feeling about the gospel coming to black Africa, he related a dream he had not understood until that very moment. He dreamed that he was the only black person in a large gathering of white members and an organ was playing background music. It sounded terrible and people were complaining. Then someone discovered that the organist was playing only on the white keys. Brother Inmpey observed: "For many, many years the Church has been playing only on the white keys, but now we are playing on the white and the black keys, and the music is much, much sweeter."
President Hinckley witnessed the sweetness of this music in 1998 when he became the first President of the Church to visit black Africa. A member of the Twelve observed that not only did the Prophet have a great impact on the Saints in Africa, but the Saints in Africa also had a great impact on the Prophet.
During a conference in Ghana President Hinckley announced that a temple would be built in their land. This prompted immediate and spontaneous applause. Although this was an unusual response for such a solemn setting, it was their natural reaction in expressing their indescribable joy and immense gratitude. For many years hundreds of African Saints have carried current temple recommends, yet 99.5% of the members in West Africa have never been to the temple. While in Africa, President Hinckley compared Peter's revelation, that opened the door for the gospel to go to the Gentiles nearly 2000 years ago, to the revelation on the priesthood allowing the gospel to go to black Africa. He quoted Peter's statement to Cornelius: "God is no respecter of persons. But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." Then the Prophet said: "That, my beloved brothers and sisters describes you. I've had that testimony reconfirmed in my heart on this trip as I have met with you and many others, that all are alike unto God. We are all of a great family, a marvelous family of the living Christ, worshiping Him together." Then referring to the revelation of June 1978, President Hinckley said: "I want to give testimony here that that was inspired, that that was a revelation from God. I was there. I was an eyewitness to it in the House of the Lord. How grateful we are."
I also testify that this work is divine and so are our spiritual roots. We are truly brothers and sisters through our spirit's birth and through our spiritual rebirth. May we always radiate pure love towards others regardless of race or culture as our Heavenly Father and the Savior do. Indeed, as the Prophet Nephi and President Hinckley have testified: "ALL ARE ALIKE UNTO GOD," to which I testify.